Robocop

UK Release Date 7th February 2014
Director José Padilha
Starring Joel Kinnaman
Runtime 118 Minutes
Certificate 12A
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 8th February 2014

Reboots, remakes, re-imaginings… There are a few different words to describe taking a (usually) treasured original idea / script / source material / film and updating it with a different director and cast but whichever one you use, the end result is generally a disappointment. Personally, I’ve never recovered from the Keifer Sutherland starring The Vanishing but more recently we seem to have dropped into a cycle where any movie can be remade within scant few years of the original (The Incredible Hulk / Hulk’s five year turnaround being one of the worst offenders). Does José Padilha’s latest offer anything new?

Robocop obviously comes with some seriously heavy fan base and the current score of 50% on Rotten Tomatoes probably reflects this pretty well. For me, I have a lot of time for Verhoeven’s 1987 original but I’m not going to go over the top. Much like Starship Troopers and Total Recall, the original was very much of its time and I could never quite reconcile the searing satire with the over the top and sometimes downright nasty violence. Time has been kind to Verhoeven’s work though and the original has grown in stature rather than being diminished by it’s very fixed date.

Padilha’s story is very much set in the now and therefore jettisons the original’s hyper-fear of inner city crime and hatred of slick, yuppy conglomerates attempting to take over the world. In place we have America as a pseudo-colonial power and Steve Jobs-like technology entrepreneurs attempting to take over the world. Poor old Alex Murphy is still on the trail of drug dealers (the one part not particularly updated), this time stepping well outside his remit and getting his partner hospitalised before the bad guys turn their attention to him. Death is a more simple affair for him this time though and a car bomb sees him dismantled and jigsawed into the famous silver suit. Murphy’s emotions are suppressed in a last minute patch to keep him onside and he’s soon out accessing multiple CCTV cameras to track down Detroit’s bad guys on his shiny super-bike. This of course can’t last and an intervention by Mrs. Murphy sends him off after the second tier bad guy who put him in the suit….

Comparing Robcop 2014 to Robocop 1987 is a pretty futile affair so I’m going to attempt to ditch that comparison here. I fully expected to completely disregard this incarnation but the opening 20 minutes made me re-consider my position. The remaining screen time sadly did not convert me. Samuel L Jackson opens the movie as Pat Novak, a kind of Fox News anchor of the future. Dressed in a hilariously poor double-breasted suit and whizzing graphics around the screen like some kind of lunatic puppet, Novak hosts the robo-friendly news show, a sort of Onmicorp propaganda machine for the masses. Cutting to live footage from a ‘peaceful’ Tehran, Novak demonstrates how good old USA is pacifying the world using Omnicorp’s robots. It’s a great scene, the immense scale of the robot fleet and the sheer weight of the machinery makes for a genuinely unsettling view of a world dominated into peace by a super-power. Novak pops up at various points through the film to rant at the camera in support of the robots and against anyone who dissents. It’s not subtle but it does very firmly plant 2014 in the not too distant future.

So that, plus Gary Oldman (as Robocop’s erstwhile doctor Dennett Norton) covers the majority of the good. The bad? Well, the movie is uneven to say the least. Much will be made of its PG-13 (12A) rating, Padilha having pretty much eliminated the grim comic book violence of the original and replaced it with odd moments of biological yuckiness. So we get Robocop dismantled in front of Murphy’s eyes, leaving a disembodied head attached to lungs and an arm on the end of a stick…. which is either mortifying if you take it seriously or hilarious if you don’t. Padilha never really seems to know if he’s trying to be funny or not. There are moments of intentional humour but this version is in no way particularly funny. Unless your mind heads off in the same direction as mine when Murphy first returns home as Robocop. In which case you’ll be wondering how on earth he’s going to fit into bed with poor Mrs. Murphy (a very much under-utilised Abbie Cornish - spending most of her screen time crying a single tear into the camera).

The positioning of 2014 in the near future works pretty well but this is at odds with other elements of the story. Murphy’s main adversary is still a drug dealer, dispensing some odd blue pills (which I think may have been the story line of Robocop 3?) and employing the kind of 80’s style thugs who given two instructions (‘Use 50 caliber or above and shoot for the head’) manifestly and spectacularly fail to manage the second of these. Incidentally, I appreciate this is only a film but what kind of criminal mastermind bases his entire ambush strategy on turning the lights out when he’s expecting a cyborg? More troubling though is the handling of the recovered memories. The most powerful element of the original story was the part-machine’s gradual realisation that he was a man and his subsequent battle to deal with resurfacing emotions. Padilha’s machine starts with its memory intact, then has its emotions suppressed, only for them to spring back into life. It’s all a bit too black and white.

Having said all that, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy Robocop, at nearly two hours it’s not a short movie but I wasn’t checking my watch as it zips along at a decent enough pace. Jackson is great value as always, as is Gary Oldman and Jackie Earle Haley puts in a decent shift as the sneering army expert. Michael Keaton is enthusiastic as the tech boss but he never quite achieves the kind of building rottenness that the role demands and the drug dealer is so utterly unmemorable, I just had to look him up on IMDB (Antoine Vallon. I think). There are one too many computer game-like sequences where Robocop is required to despatch a set number of bad guys but at least ED-209 gets to make a re-appearance though sadly this time it doesn’t get baffled by stairs. Overall then, I can’t brand this a total failure but equally, I’m not convinced it’s worth your time. Unless maybe if you go to see it at the IMax or haven’t seen the original. Otherwise, catch it on DVD.

Check out the trailer here.

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